Category Archives: Destinations

Talking to the Animals

This is an Ontario sanctuary where the creature connections are paramount.

Trotting up to me on dainty pink hooves, Gretel was the first of the welcome party to greet me. A rosy-hued potbellied pig, Gretel curiously snuffled at my pant legs, then softly grunted as I scratched between her ears. As we started to unpack the car, our second greeter appeared. Sheldon, a black potbellied pig, snorted with pleasure as my husband Steve smoothed his hands over Sheldon’s bristly back.

Gretel says hello.
Sheldon checks out the new guests.

This promised to be a red-letter stay.

Steve, my husband, and I discovered Nature’s Energy Centre & Animal Sanctuary on the Internet when we were looking for a driveable getaway from Toronto. The fact that you could interact with donkeys, mules, goats, and piggies cinched the deal.

Located between Niagara Falls and Welland, the three-acre property had two options for guests, the “Hoblet” and the “Twiglet.” Since the Hoblet had been booked by a newlywed couple for their honeymoon, we went for the “Twiglet,” a tiny home with screened-in porch, electric fireplace, DVD player, bedroom, bathroom and a kitchen space outfitted with everything we needed – bar fridge, induction hotplate, toaster oven, and kettle. Plus, there was an outdoor BBQ.

After our potbellied welcome, Petra Cuddy, who owns the sanctuary with her husband Mush (he goes by this nickname), showed us around the Twiglet and then took us on a tour of the property.

Buddy and Squeeky.

“We started this 15 years ago. I have had a fascination with donkeys since I was young. My mother has a pictures of me as a kid with a stuffed toy donkey,” she explained. They got their first animals, Buddy, a white mule and Homey, a mammoth donkey, when a neighbour came over saying “I hear you love donkeys.”

“She knew these two were being sold for meat at auction in Kitchener,” explained Petra. Laying down their winning bid of 60 cents a pound, the couple became the proud owners of the equines and their adventures in animal rescue began.

Munchie the TV star.

Peeping over the fence of a hay-filled enclosure, we were thrilled to meet the donkeys next. “Squeeky’s the little one. He’s got Cushings disease, but the vet says he’s coming along nicely,” said Petra, pointing to a shy, shaggy creature. She and Mush had seen him at a local pumpkin vendor’s, locked in a pen with four rams. The sheep were butting him incessantly, so Petra and Mush offered the farmer $200 and came home with a new family member. Also munching hay in the enclosure were Tyson and Munchie. “Munchie is our celebrity TV star. He appeared in the sixth season of Murdoch Mysteries,” said Petra proudly.

The dark, mid-sized donkey seemed healthy and fit, but when Petra first laid eyes on him he could barely walk. “The family that owned him never trimmed his hooves and he developed slipper feet, a very painful condition where the hooves start curling up. It can lead to all sorts of other problems. It took him almost a year to recover.”

Homey and Buddy saw us at the fence and sauntered over, looking for apple or carrot treats. To me, Buddy looked more like a horse than a mule. “The vet thinks he has some Arabian in him,” Petra explained.

Homey, Buddy and the guitar man.

Later, Steve decided to serenade them. Was it the music? Or the promise of more treats that had them enthralled?

A tiny store!

Following the path past the Higelty Pigelty, a “Tiny Store” stocked with crafty items and flea market finds, we came to the pigs’ pens. Filled with sweet smelling straw, the first one was home to Schpeck (German for bacon), the biggest and oldest of the potbellied pigs. “He gets on well with Sheldon, so they room together.” Gretel shared a pen with Groot, another pot bellied pig she was rescued with through the Welland Humane Society. “Someone had them as pets, but it was against an urban ordinance. I have a relationship with that humane society and they called and asked if I would take them. I had 24-hours to get them or they would be put down.”

Schpecky and his sweet pink socks.

Gretel and Groot were snorting over something in their playhouse. “Sometimes she can be a little feisty. She is our Xena Warrior Princess,” said Petra.

Groot checks out the snacks in his playhouse.

Breathing in, I noticed the absence of any pungent, barnyard whiff. Instead, it smelled of fresh hay and the clean scent of pine from the property’s many trees.

“We feed them organic hay and make sure their pens are always cleaned out. Pigs are very clean creatures, they don’t defecate where they sleep,” explained Petra.

This crowd of porkers was also smart. They knew their names and when they heard the dinner bell, watch out. Petra let them roam the fenced property for most of the day, and around five o’clock she’d ring a bell to let them know their bowls would soon be filled with hog feed and veggie scraps. Standing out by the Twiglet, I heard the bell ring and so did Gretel. She rushed towards her pen faster than a greyhound.

Dinner time!

Camera in hand, I documented dinner time. Schpecky stood impatiently by his bowl while Petra poured the feed in. Taking a quick bite, he turned tail and ran over to Sheldon’s bowl. Sheldon headed for Schpecky’s bowl. The other guy’s bowl is always better, it seems. Groot and Gretel investigated the goodies Petra left in their playhouse, snorting and snuffling as they rubbed past each other to what was in their bowls.

Monty, such a handsome boy, waiting for breakfast.

My responsibility was to feed Monty, the goat. A black-and-white, golden-eyed boy whose pen was between the Hoblet and the Twiglet, Monty was waiting for me every morning. Sometimes he also got a carrot, a piece of apple, the occasional peanut and one day, as a treat, he gobbled up a corn husk (the piggies got the cob with the kernels). He seemed to find this especially yummy.

Schpecky coming over for his morning visit to the Twiglet.

During our three-day stay, we relaxed into a regular routine. I’d feed Monty, then go and sit on the back porch, by the Twiglet’s little frog pond. Gretel would come by for a veggie scrap, then later big Schpeck would put two hooves up on the porch step and stick out his snout expectantly. We got in the habit of feeding him peanuts each morning. Later in the day, I’d get some carrots or slices of apple and feed the donkeys over the fence. Usually they would go out to pasture, but I could catch them when a new load of hay was dropped off in their yard.

Tyson, taking five.

All the creatures at the sanctuary had sad stories of neglect, abuse or were headed for overseas meat markets. Petra and Mush opened their big hearts and thankfully the story is now a happy one. They receive no outside funding, so the income from the Twiglet and Hoblet goes towards food and vet care.

Gretel is one happy piggie. She made my day.

Being kind to animals, and having them respond in a trusting manner, for me is a form of therapy. In this time of anxiety, we all need to find activities that calm our nerves. At Nature’s Energy Centre & Animal Sanctuary I found I had a big smile on my face and a glow in my heart. Those beasties are all now firmly in my bubble.

Glowing in Glasgow

All sorts of great things are happening in this once dissed city: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

We snuck into the stately manor house on Blair Estate quietly, dropped our bags in our lushly appointed room, then rushed into the bedroom opposite. “Surprise!” my husband Steve and I yelled as our friend Leah turned to look at us, her eyes popping out of her head. Dan, her husband, had rented a wing of the majestic old manor house half-hour’s drive outside Glasgow to celebrate Leah’s 60th birthday.  She knew she was going to Scotland, but she didn’t know six of her closest friends would join her for the holiday of a lifetime.

Blair House Estate.

Dan had chosen Scotland because he and Leah live in the small town of Ayr, Ont., population 4,000. Blair Estate was in Ayrshire and a short drive to Ayr, Scotland, population 46,000. Comparing the two was of prime importance to them. My goal was to enjoy Blair Estate’s landscaped 250 acres, and spend time exploring Glasgow and the nearby town of Kilmarnock, where my grandfather was born.

Our first dinner was at Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery, a Glaswegian institution. Sitting down, I surveyed my surroundings. Gleaming oak and mahogany, stained glass and tartan carpet ­– pure Scottish luxury. To start, we tucked into warm roasted cauliflower salad with crowdie (a soft cheese), honey roast hazelnuts and pickled beetroot. I had Catch of the Day, trout and Steve had seared Scottish sirloin, three onion mash and traditional Diane sauce. For dessert we ordered one malted chocolate cheesecake with salted toffee caramel sauce and the brandy basket with duo of ice creams. Our dreams that night back at Blair Estate were sweet, indeed.

The next morning we took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city to get our bearings, getting off at a number of stops including Glasgow Cathedral with its fascinating Museum of Religious Life and Art, and spooky necropolis in the basement.  

Another captivating stop was Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a massive structure built in 1901. A local Glaswegian guide named Patricia walked us through. “Glasgow was built on the tobacco and sugar trades. When she lost the colonies, the economy switched to coal mining,” she told us. One of the top 15 most visited museums in the world, it is easy to get lost in Kelvingrove  22 galleries including natural history, arms and armour and art with Old Master and Impressionist works. We walked by a hanging Spitfire plane, a taxidermied elephant, and one of the world’s largest collection of swords and armor and Patricia filled us in on the background of many exhibits, including that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an architect and artist famous for his Art Nouveau creations and known for designing the Willow Tearooms in Glasgow.

Another impressive building we toured in the city was Pollok House, once home to Sir William Stirling Maxwell. He was one of the founders of the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity dedicated to preserving historic buildings and monuments. Instead of the usual tour of treasures upstairs, we opted for the Servants Tour, which took us into the bowels of the building. “In 1905, the house had 48 servants,” said Jill, our guide, as she led us down the white-tiled corridor that led to the butler’s room. “The men lived in the basement, the women in the attic. The butler was known as a “bottleman” and was in charge of the wine. He also kept the family’s finest silver and glass under lock and key down here. He was the highest paid of all the servants.” Looking around the tidy room I spied what looked like an iron. “What do you think that was for?” asked Jill, lifting the heavy, cast iron implement. It wasn’t for clothing. “The butler ironed the newspaper each day before giving it to the master of the house. This helped to set the ink so he wouldn’t get his hands dirty.”  Jill was full of tidbits about Edwardian manor house customs. “The housekeeper was paid a third less than the butler, but she had her own servant, plus two rooms for her quarters. She was always called Mrs., even if she wasn’t married. The parlor maid was always called “Emma” and the footmen were called John and James and had to match in height and looks. The house had 40 fireplaces, and a half-ton of cok was hoisted upstairs daily to feed them.”  We popped into the china storage room and Jill told us, “there was a china maid to look after this. If she broke something, she’d have to pay for it from her salary. It could take years.” In the large servant’s hall, we learned this is where they gathered for their meals. “The butler said grace and the head footman said a toast to the health of the master and mistress before they ate. They were well fed and had no expenses, so a job here was much desired,” Jill explained.

After the tour, we headed upstairs to poke about the grand house on our own. The Maxwell family had lived on the site for six centuries, but the main part of the present house was built in the mid-18th century. Walking through the elegant rooms, I felt like I was in a Jane Austen novel. The top two floors of the house were not open to the public because they are still lived in by members of the Maxwell family.

You can’t visit Scotland and not learn about scotch. At Clydeside Distillery, built on the banks of the River Clyde and opened in 2017, not only did we learn how the precious amber liquid is made, we sampled a variety of different brands and educated our palates. “The Morrison family built this distillery to demonstrate scotch whiskey distilling in general,” said Ronnie Grant, our guide.  Many of the big name brands you see in liquor stores today originated in Glasgow in the late 1800s. Distilling was originally done in small grocery stores where the owners would blend whisky, at first illegally. “Surgical barbers and grocers were the first to make their own blends. Johnny Walker was a grocer from Kilmarnock who first blended teas, then whiskey,” noted Ronnie. Other grocers turned whiskey barons included men with last names including Harvey, Dewars, Teacher and Buchanan. Originally, all whiskey was blended, unlike today where many brands pride themselves on being single malts. Ronnie explained the difference. “Blends contain a mix of barrel-aged malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries, while single malts are a product of just one distillery.” Peering into vats of grains, we got a close-up view of the process.  “The grain we use here is barley. It is steeped in warm water, germinates and releases starch and turns to sugar. Then it is dried and deactivated. Next steps are mashing, fermentation, distillation and finally maturation in oak casks. Here, the scotch spends a minimum of three years in the casks,” explained Ronnie.

Back at Blair Estate, it was time to celebrate Leah’s birthday and we headed to nearby Michelin starred Braidwoods Restaurant for a sublime meal matched with excellent wines. After toasting the birthday girl, we toasted Dan for coming up with such a fabulous plan. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate a landmark birthday than in a manor house from the 1600s, surrounded by close friends. It doesn’t get any better.

Falling in Love with Portugal

Portugal’s allure is undeniable. Succulent seafood, the azure waters of the Algarve, welcoming people, a temperate climate, and a rich history.  My first grand tour of Europe began in Portugal when I was 18 and my heart was instantly ensnared by its captivating beauty. Last year I returned and was thrilled to find the first love of my travelling life was still as enchanting as I remembered.

Landing in Lisbon, we were met by a dazzling display of burnt orange roofs, cobblestone streets, and walls awash in a lemony glow. Lisbon, with a population of 500,000, is a European gem, often forgotten in favor of bigger, showier competitors. But on this visit, I was reminded of why this beautiful grand dame deserves a second look.

My husband and I made our base the centrally located Tivoli Avenida Liberdade hotel. Poking around the lobby, I came across a history of the storied hotel and learned it had been Portuguese actress Beatriz Costa’s home for 30 years. The black and white film star once shared the silver screen with stars such as Marlene Dietrich and you can see her portrait outside her former suite. Getting into the hotel’s luxe vibe, one of the first things I did was splurge on an Anantara Signature massage. Tivoli is owned by the Minor Hotel Group, which also owns the Anantara spa brand. After my feet were washed in a bowl of warm water, I picked a lavender essential oil for my treatment and melted under the sure hands of my Thai masseuse.

That night, at Sky Bar, on the hotel’s 9th floor, I saw that the hotel still draws A-list guests. Out under the stars, beautifully attired folks lounged on comfy seats while looking out over the twinkling city. It was the perfect place to sip designer cocktails and delectable small bites.

The scene continued at the hotel’s Seen Restaurant where bartenders buzzed under a very real looking tree (the trunk was, the leaves were not) and wait staff served choice selections from “chefpreneur” Olivier da Costa’s tantalizing menu. Dishes were a combination of Brazilian, Portuguese and Japanese – Wagyu beef like butter, fresh caught Portuguese fish and Brazilian palm hearts were just a few of the treats we sampled.

The next day we walked Lisbon’s cobbled streets to burn off a few calories, and headed for St. Jorge Castle, strategically located on one of the city’s highest points. After a calf-tightening ascent, we caught our breath, admired the view and marched into the crumbling stone edifice. Built by the Moors in the mid-11th century, the castle became a home for royalty in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, new buildings were raised over the older ruins and by the 19th century military barracks covered the entire area. The castle and ruins of the former royal palace were rediscovered after restoration work in the late 1930s. We walked the circumference of the castle, admiring the eleven remaining towers and then admired a collection of artifacts found during the restoration.

The Moorish influence can be seen throughout the city in much of the architecture, but taking a tram overlooking the Tagus River towards Belem, we also noticed contemporary hotels and bustling emporiums such as the Time Out Market.  By the time we reached Belem Tower, one of the most photographed historic sites in the city, the sun was going down. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the structure was built in the 1500s to guard the estuary at the mouth of the Targus and later it served as a customs house. In that light, it almost glowed and it was easy to imagine mighty sailing vessels paying her tribute.

Portugal’s majestic past can also be seen in Sintra, a 30-minute drive from Lisbon. Nestled in the hills of the Serra de Sintra, it was the summer playground of royalty and is filled with whimsical palaces and mansions.  Our first stop was the Pena Palace which sprang from the imagination of King Ferdinand II. Originally a 16th century monastery, the palace was converted into the king’s summer house in the late 1800s. After the king’s death, his son Carlos spent his holidays there until he was assassinated in 1908. The palace had a fairytale-like quality, was painted in gelato colours, and was filled with hidden nooks and crannies. When we finally emerged, the grounds were wrapped in fog thick as cotton wool and it felt as if we had been transported back to another century. Our visit to nearby Quinta da Regaleira, a world heritage site built at the end of the 19th century, had a similar feel. “We get a lot of fog here. It’s what makes Sintra so special,” the clerk at the ticket counter said.

Fotografia: Lionel Balteiro Tivoli – Palácio de Seteais

Our hotel was equally spellbinding.  The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais was built in the late 1700s for King John the 6th, who never lived there. At the start of of the French Revolution in 1779, he left for Brazil. Taking a tour of the property with a staff member, I learned most of the furniture, including handmade carpets and tapestries, was original. “A Dutch ambassador bought it as a summer house for his son, but he didn’t like it here. Too much fog,” noted my guide. There were many owners over the years and in 1955 it was converted into a hotel with two tennis courts, swimming pool, lemon garden, and mountain hiking and biking nearby.

These days, it is part of the Tivoli family and contains 30 guest rooms. The King and Queen of the Netherlands had stayed in our room two years prior, according to the guest book displayed in the lobby. Leafing through the book, I noticed other big name guests included Agatha Christie, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. The hotel’s dining room was exquisite and one evening we decided to pair our meal with local wines from Colares.

We learned the winery gives guided tours by appointment and the next morning we went and met Francisco Figueiredo, the chief winemaker. He told us the winery is a co-op and was founded in 1931. “This is a very old wine area. Records show it goes back to the 1300s,” he explained. He noted the devastating blight of phylloxera (microscopic lice that eat the roots of grapevines) didn’t hit this region because the vines grow in sand. “The way we plant, we were protected. There is no water or nutrients in the sand for the lice.” He explained that trenches are dug through two to three meters of sandy soil, the vines are planted in better soil and then covered with sand. “The lice can’t tunnel down to the roots,” he noted. Sipping one of the reds, we noticed it had a lot of acidity and a slight bite of tannins, but also a softness since the wine is finished for a year in French Oak barrels.

Before departing, I wanted to paying my respects to Sintra’s wine industry, and went for a pampering Vinotherapy Facial in the hotel spa. Once the palace’s pigeon house, it had been remodeled into a high- end luxury facility. After the red grape mask and a quartz healing gemstone face massage I looked in the mirror. Did it help slow the aging process as promised? I wasn’t sure about that, but I was rested and ready for our next adventure.

The Algarve was our final destination and on the way to the sunny coast, we stopped in the walled city of Evora. History abounded everywhere, from the Roman temple, built in the 1st century AD, to the towering aquaduct from the 1500s that continues to supply city water today.

In particular, what caught my eye among the winding, cobblestone streets was the Chapel of Bones, attached to the Church of St. Francisco. Built in the 17th century to encourage reflection of mortality and Christianity, the chapel contained thousands of bones placed in decorative patterns on the walls. Just a tad unsettling.

Thankfully, all dark, macabre thoughts were banished by the time we reached the sun soaked Algarve. We checked into our hotel, Tivoli Carvoeiro a 248- room seaside spread that was refurbished in 2017, and prepared for our Carvoeiro Tuk Tuk tour of the area. Antonio arrived promptly in his lime green four-seater and we took off for an open air jaunt to a cliff-side trail, Alfanzina lighthouse, and two ceramic studios, Porches Pottery and Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery). Antonio explained that Porches

 Pottery, was founded by Dublin artist Patrick Swift in 1962.  Swift’s daughter Juliette was behind the counter.  “We have 11 staff and nine painters. When we first came, we had moved from London where my father hung out with painters such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon in the pubs. Mother was glad to get out of London and the unhealthy lifestyle.” Juliette noted she couldn’t think of living anywhere else now. “I love it here. The Algarve is steeped in history and sunshine.” Speaking more with Juliette, I learned that her father reinvigorated a local art form that was dying out. “At one time there were a lot of studios making pottery for everyday use. When plastic came along, the studios started closing,” she explained. At Porches Pottery (Porches is the name of the small community where they are located) local artists paint the ceramics for the shop and also make custom pieces.

At Bacchus, a café attached to the shop lined with decorative tiles, I met owner Carlos, who had been born in Portugal but lived in Toronto for most of his life. Five years ago he and his wife Tina and son Rick came back to Portugal and took over the café. “I love the sun and lifestyle here,” Carlos explained.

The final stop on our tuk tuk tour was Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery) where we met owner Ian Fitzpatrick and his daughter Molly. Originally from Glasgow, Ian came to the Algarve after completing art college to work with a friend. “That was 38 years ago,” he said with a smile.

He opened his Olaria Pequena in 1983 outside the village of Porches and today his daughters Molly and Martha, also ceramics artists, give him occasional assistance. Olives and lemons are his main motifs. Although he uses traditional craft techniques, his work is fresh and contemporary and very much in demand.

Portugal has a way of capturing people’s hearts. There’s an easy warmth to the country that stays with you long after you depart. It’s a warmth that draws you back. For some, even to stay.

Decorative Tiles

In Portugal they are everywhere, decorating walls of churches to palaces, parks, shops and railway stations. Often they portray historic scenes and sometimes they are simply street signs. The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word azzulayj, meaning “polished stone.” Inspired by the tiles in Spain’s Moorish-built Alhambra, King Manuel I had them installed in his palace in Sintra. Originally designed with geometric patterns as per Islamic law, the tiles became more intricate and included human and animal figures when Portuguese painters took up the art.

Useful Websites

Lisbon –

Tivoli Hotels –

Sintra –

Portugal –

Quebec’s Maritime Marvels

The haunting view from Isle-aux-Grues.

I have visited many parts of the belle province, but never Chaudière-Appalaches or Bas St. Lawrence, on the south shore of the mighty St. Lawrence river. When given a chance to tour this area in the fall, I jumped.

Aboard the shortest scheduled flight in the world.

After landing in Quebec City, we drove a short distance to Cap-Saint-Ignace and climbed aboard an Air Montmagny 8-seater and took off on the world’s shortest scheduled flight to Isle-aux-Grues. A staggering four minutes. Great for some aerial photography. The island was part of a 21 island/islets archipelago of the same name, and it was the only one inhabited year round. Our host, Gilles Tardif picked us up at the tiny airport and we headed to his inn, Maisons du Grand Héron. “I bought it as a summer home and the islanders convinced me to also open a restaurant there. Now it is a main gathering place.” Located next to the ferry dock, it was a prime location to catch islanders coming back on a 30-minute ride from the mainland. Gilles treated us to a delicious dinner of black sturgeon, caught in the St. Lawrence. “There are only two places in the world you can find this fish,” he explained, “here and in Iran.” As well as the inn’s eight standard rooms, it offered guests a choice of two teepees and two yurts. I was in the main part of the inn with a terrific view of the river.

Michelle Beaulieu and the ultra creamy brie of Fromagerie de L’Isle.

The next day we headed to a main employer on the island of around 90 inhabitants. At Fromagerie de L’Isle, sales manager Michelle Beaulieu treated us to some samples of cheese. My favourite was world award-winner Brie le Riopelle de l’Isle, a triple cream formula with flavours of mushroom and butter. After sampling the Cheval Noir, aged 60 days with an ash rind, and Curé Quartier, with an orange, chewy rind, I could see why Michelle proclaimed “We have the best cheese in Quebec!’

Despite its small population, Isle-aux-Grues’ church still stands proud.

Gilles took us on a little tour of the island, stopping at a lovely church, Paroisse de Saint-Antoine de L’Isle-aux-Grues, and the Jean-Paul Riopelle natural reserve where almost three kilometers of trails looped around 300-year-old trees. “More than 200 species of birds come here. We have the highest wetlands in North America and are a feeding stop for migrating birds such as bobolink, short-eared owls, great blue herons, snow geese and eagles,” Gilles explained.

Thousands of immigrants went through mandatory health checks on Grosse Isle before being welcomed to Canada.

The next island in the 21-island Isle-aux-Grues archipelago we visited had special significance for me. Grosse-Ile was a quarantine station for the port of Québec from 1832 to 1937. The main entry point for immigrants to Canada was experienced by three of my grandparents when they came from the United Kingdom in the 1920s.

Parks Canada took over operation of the site in 1990 and costumed historic interpreters walked us through the steps the immigrants had to go through. “Line up, men on one side, women on the other,” ordered a young man in a navy uniform. After introducing himself as the site’s assistant doctor, he told us to stick out our tongues. “If it is black, white or brown, you might have a disease,” he warned, noting the worst were typhus, diphtheria, small pox and cholera. Lucky, we all came out pink. He showed us the huge pressurized cages where the immigrants belongings would be disinfected, they led us to the showers where they would have stood under a nozzle spurting a mixture of water and disinfecting mercury hydrochloride. “The disinfection building was built in 1890. We have the best preserved quarantine station in the world,” he informed us.

The mass gravesite of more than 5,000 Irish immigrants.

Grosse-Ile is also the site of the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Our Parks guide, Chady Chahine, led us to a quiet corner of the island where white crosses marked the mass graves of more than 5,000 Irish immigrants, many who perished during the potato famine in 1847. A towering Celtic cross was positioned looking out over the water to honour the largest potato famine cemetery outside Ireland.  In other areas of the island, there were 30 restored buildings, including the first, second and third class hotels where immigrants were housed, depending on their berth on the ship they arrived on.

One room was hung with promotional posters urging immigrants to come to Canada. I noted not one said anything about winter. “People were offered 160 acres of land. This was really enticing since the average small farmer in Europe at the time had an average of 15 acres,” Chady explained. To get to Grosse-Ile, there’s a ferry at Marina de Berthier-sur-Mer that takes 45 minutes. Admission, including the ferry, is $70 and people bring picnics since there is no café or restaurant on the island. The site opens in May and closes at Thanksgiving.

Tranquil Auberge Glacis features fine dining.

Back on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, we drove to Auberge Glacis, a charming inn that had once been an old mill. Located near L’Islet, it was surrounded by farmland and the dining room featured a tasting menu that integrated 55 local producers.

Canada’s only hydrofoil, the HMCS Bras d’Or.

The next morning, we headed to the Maritime Museum of Quebec in L’Islet. The highlights here were tours aboard the Earnest Lapointe, a Coast Guard icebreaker built in 1941, and a Canada’s only hydrofoil, HMCS Bras d’Or. Capt. Bernard Girard, who helmed oil tankers for 25 years, showed us around the ice breaker. I learned that ships like this don’t directly plough into the ice, but climb up over it. “The weight of the ship comes down and breaks the ice. When she’s breaking ice, trying to sleep is hell,” he said, indicating one of the crew’s bunks. The hydrofoil was an experimental project, used from 1960-71. Based on work of Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, her speeds could get up to 117 km per hour (the fastest unarmed warship in the world at the time). Unfortunately, it was an expensive project and when a new government came in, the military budget was cut.

Driving to Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, we stopped to walk the gardens of Seigneurie des Aulnaies and tour the historic home of the Dion family. “The house was built in 1853. It’s a Regency style with 11-foot-ceilings. We have all the original Dion furniture,” explained our costumed guide, clad in period dress complete with hoop skirt. Also on property was the village mill, the largest bucket wheel in operation in Québec where stone-ground flour is made to this day. Du Pain C’est Tout Bakery next door, owned by baker Charles Létang, proudly serves bread baked daily with heritage wheat such as Red Fife, Marquee, and Huron. My grilled cheese on cranberry bread made with Marquee flour was ooey, gooey good.

Entering the Bas-Saint-Laurent region, we parked the van and climbed 150 m to the top of Montagne a Coton. Catching our break, we scanned the horizon, glad for the breathtaking view and also happy to have burned off a few calories.

Kamouraska’s impressive church.

A five-minute drive away was Kamouraska, a charming town with artisanal bakeries, chocolate producers, a gourmet grocery, craft soap maker, fish shop, art centre, and general store. The impressive Saint-Louis-de-Kamouraska Church, stood impassively over the bustling town. A little outside town, it was time for some thirst quenching at Tet d’Allumette microbrewery.

Beer with a view.

Sitting on the outdoor terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence, we sipped sample flights and watched the sun slowly begin to sink. One of the most joyous patrons here was Marcel, a nine-month-old French Bulldog. I was in heaven.

The faux lighthouse of Saint-André de Kamouraska.

On our way to Notre-Dame-du-Portage, we stopped at Saint-André de Kamouraska. Winding down a path lined with wild roses, we came to a picturesque little lighthouse. Going inside, we found that it wasn’t a real lighthouse, just a shelter for hikers in the area and maintained by the locals. Very cute.

Dinner was at Auberge du Portage, with a fantastic view of the St. Lawrence. I had the yellow perch. Delicious.

The next day we caught a boat in Riviere-du-loup and headed out on the choppy water to Ile-aux-Lievres, Island of Hares. The island was bought 20 years ago by a non-profit group called Duvetnor and today, 3/4 of the island is owned by the provincial government. Duvetnor was founded 1989 by a group of biologists to protect the seabirds that nest on the islands. Before reaching Ile-aux- Lievres, we passed Iles-du-Pot a L’eau-de-vie, Brandy Pot Island, where Duvetnor had converted the lighthouse into a three-room inn. This was a birders paradise. The islands are home to thousands of Razorbills, Common Murres, Black Gullemots and Common Eiders. Melody Lachance, a coordinator with Duvetnor, told us that for around 100 years the island was uninhabited, just used for logging and hunting. “Duvetnor bought the islands 20 years ago. Now there are seven cottages and an inn with nine bedrooms, as well as some rustic campgrounds. Guests staying at the inn have meals included but if you are camping you have to bring in your own supplies,” she said.

The café on Isle-aux-Lievres.

Dropping off our gear in our rooms, we made our way out to an old logging trail behind the inn. “I’ll take you to the end of the world,” teased Melody. When we emerged at the windy, rocky edge of the island 30 minutes later she popped a thermos, cups and muffins out of her bag and we sat silently drinking in the stunning scenery.

Chilling at the End of the World.

That evening, Melody gave us a presentation on the island. “This is about science, conservation, and tourism,” she explained. We learned that Duvetnor’s founder, Jean Bedard was a Quebec biologist who along with seven colleagues, decided to do something to protect the nesting areas. One of their prime missions was to make harvesting of Eider down sustainable. Eider females are brown and camouflaged, while the males sport striking white and black feathers.

Eider eggs (all empty – for display purposes only), covered with down.

“Seagulls are their biggest predators. The females pool together to defend the ducklings. If a baby loses its mother, the aunties take over,” explained Melody. Since 2003, 20,000 females have been banded. The delicate work of no-harm down collection was devised by Duvetnor and the method is now embraced by Conservation Canada. Females pluck down from their breasts to cover their eggs and keep them warm. In the old days, harvesters would gather the down, in some cases disturbing the nest so that the female would not return. Today, Duvetnor staff and volunteers visit each colony only once towards the end of incubation to collect a portion of down in each nest. It is cleaned and sterilised by Duvetnor, then sold to wholesale companies in Europe that supply quilt (comforter) and outdoor wear manufacturers. Profits made from eiderdown has allowed Duvetnor to purchase, protect and enhance several islands of the Lower Saint-Lawrence and to maintain its ecotourism program. One kilogram of Eider down is worth around $1,000 and a king-sized eiderdown duvet can cost up to $10,000. The eiderdown harvest is an important way Duvetnor can sustain its activities. Along with the St. Lawrence, colonies are found in the far north, including Iceland and Greenland.

What a view at Parc Nationale Bic!

Driving towards Rimouski, we stopped at Parc Nationale Bic, where 200 harbour seals make their home, the biggest colony in the St. Lawrence estuary. A climb to the highest point in the park delivered a spectacular view of the St. Lawrence.

La Reserve Bistro’s fantastic halibut tower.

Dinner that night was at La Reserve Bistro in Rimouski. A warm, bustling establishment, it served a lot of fresh seafood including a halibut tower, salmon tartar, and oysters on the half shell.

Early diver’s suit at the Historic Maritime Museum.

The next morning, we drove to Pointe-au-Pere and the Historic Maritime Museum where I learned of Canada’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland.  Owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships, the vessel went down in 14 minutes when she was struck in heavy fog by the SS Storstad. The accident occurred in St. Lawrence in 1914 and 1,012 people were lost. It was heartbreaking to see the artifacts that had been retrieved including a tiny child’s purse. Of 138 children on board, only four survived. Amazingly, a stoker named William Clark who had been rescued from the Titanic, also survived.

One of the highest lighthouses in Canada.

Also on the site was a lighthouse that had operated from 1909-1975. At 33 meters high, it is one of the tallest in Canada. Climbing up the spiral stairs was a challenge, but the views at the top were worth it.

Heading into the Onondaga.

Testing my tolerance for cramped spaces, I boarded the Onondaga, a 90-metre submarine that had a crew of 70 men.   Built in 1967, it was a cold war initiative and was decommissioned in 2000. Donning a headset, I was guided through the extremely compact interior and learned that missions lasted up to 90 days, travelling speed was seven km per hour and it had circled the planet 23 times. Judging by the tight escape hatches, crew members really had to watch their weight.

My final stop was Reford Gardens, a 30-minute drive from Pointe-au-Pere in the Gaspésie region. Despite it being mid-September, the garden was flourishing. There were more than 3,000 species of plants in more than a dozen gardens. It wasn’t the right season for its famous Himalayan blue poppy to be in bloom, but I saw pictures of this exquisite flower at Estevan Lodge, the summer home of Elsie Reford who created the gardens from 1926 to 1958. Alexander Reford, Elsie’s great-grandson, the garden’s director and historian, met us at the gate and we lunched at the Bufton Café. The geranium bars at dessert were perfection, decorated with real flowers. “Bufton was the name of Elsie’s butler,” Alexander explained. “George Steven was Elsie’s uncle. He built the Canadian Pacific Railway in five years.

Estevan Lodge.

He built this house as a summer place to fish salmon. John D. Rockefeller used to come here and fish. George gifted the property to Elsie in 1918.”

Walking past gurgling brooks, and pathways lined with late blooms, Alexander noted that his great-grandmother was 54 when she started gardening. “It was an organic process for her. She’d try things out and if it didn’t work, she’d rearrange them,” he said, adding, “well, she’d have someone else do the heavy lifting. But she was a tough, old bird. Loved to fish and hunt.”

For 20 years, the International Garden Festival that runs from June to October, takes over a section of Reford Gardens. The innovative outdoor designs are submitted by landscape architects, artists and creative souls from around the world. Colourful and interactive, the installations were a delight. My favourite?  The one with a swing!

Stratford, Ont. – Traditional with a Twist

The city’s magnificent City Hall.

I had not been to Stratford, Ont., for a few years and this time I was surprised by some great food, chocolate (in a realm of its own) and a marvelous transportation option. Getting there was a breeze. You can hop on a $29 bus from downtown Toronto as long as you have purchased a theatre ticket. So relaxing!

Welcoming cocktails at The (Old) Prune’s Bar 151.

After the two-hour bus ride, which picked me up at 10 a.m. from in front of the InterContinental Hotel, it was time for lunch. The (Old) Prune was located in the historic downtown in a lovely old house that has been remodeled. Casual yet sophisticated, they offered locally inspired cuisine and the newest addition, Bar 151 offered creative cocktails.

Delectable garden radishes.

I sampled a number of dishes including garden radishes with wasabi butter and sea salt, mussels escabeche, and foie gras & chicken liver mousse (restaurant owner Shelley Windsor’s favorite. “I almost gave myself gout, I ate so much one year,” she confided.)

The main plate was spring pea ravioli with morel mushrooms, white sesame and wild leeks. So fresh! Dessert was a delicate chevre cheesecake with macerated rhubarb and fennel. Shelley Windsor, from Cornerbrooke, Newfoundland, and her husband Bill, moved to Stratford 18 years ago from New Brunswick. “We had an opportunity to go to Vancouver or Stratford. We chose lifestyle over career,” says Shelley. But career has taken off, too, and they now own numerous restaurants in town including Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. It’s also interesting to point out that the Stratford Chef School, renown for education some of the country’s best chefs, started off in the Prune kitchen.

Gallery Stratford, housed in the old Pump House.
An exhibit by Libby Hague featured provocative wood cuts.

My group, a number of journalists and local Stratford tourism reps, boarded a bus to get to our next destination. It was supplied via Meet Stratford Road Trips. The company offers lots of options to explore the surrounding countryside but we focused on in-town attractions – Gallery Stratford and Stratford Perth Museum. Gallery Stratford is one of Ontario’s longest operating public art galleries, open since 1967. Contemporary exhibitions focus on regional and Canadian art. Located in the former pump house, its a five minute walk from Stratford Festival Theatre and the Avon River. The gallery is open seven days a week, making it a pleasant stop before a matinee. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

Me and the Biebs.

At Stratford Perth Museum, I walked through the front door and pop phenom Justin Bieber popped out to meet me. Well, his cardboard cutout, that is. The Steps to Stardom exhibit (which runs until November) chronicles the Stratford native’s journey to the top of the charts, starting with busking in front of the Avon Theatre to raise money for a trip to Disney World with his mom. “The exhibit opened last February and lineups started at 6 a.m. People came from all around the world including Paris, Berlin, and Australia. The Belieber Community is really strong online. They took shots, tagged them, and the exhibit grew,” notes Kelly McIntosh, the museum’s administrative co-ordinator.

If you want to be in the heart of the action, there are a couple of downtown boutique hotels to chose from including Bentley’s Lofts, bi-level loft suites, or the Mercer Hotel, with Jacuzzi tubs and faux fireplaces. Both are close to restaurants, shops and all four theatres. I stayed in the Mercer Hotel and loved being able to pop downstairs to shop on Ontario Street’s many unique boutiques.

The Common’s uncommonly delicious green Thai curry.

One dinner to remember was at The Common with Chef Tim Otsuki, a Stratford Chefs School alumnus. The menu was a fustion of Asian, Caribbean and North American dishes featuring many local ingredients. My meal in a bowl was a green Thai curry that had subtle flavours of lemongrass and just the right nip of hot spice.

Chef Eli demonstrates the proper way to dice an onion.
Getting my shallot chop down.
Voila! The perfect French omelette.

At the Stratford Chefs School Open Kitchen you can take a one-off cooking class and our group opted for a champagne breakfast. Latkes with smoked trout, French omelette, and puffed pastry with rhubarb and strawberries was a decadent way to start the day. My biggest takeaway was learning how to make a French omelette. Now I need to practice at home! Thankfully, chef Eli Silverthorne was an excellent and patient instructor.

On the chocolate line at Rheo Thompson Candies.
Mint Smoothie madness – ice cream, coffee, liqueur and tea!
At Rheo Thompson they understand the importance of the giddy up.

The sweetest part of my adventure was a visit to Rheo Thompson Candies. Traditional recipes dating back to the 1930s have made this spot a favourite for locals and visitors alike. The Mint Smoothies were to die for — I especially liked the dark chocolate version with a dark chocolate peppermint center. The company is 50 years old and was bought from original candymaker Rheo Thompson in 1992 by Christine and Mark Steed. Christine was born and raised in Stratford and is adamant about keeping her customers happy. “We don’t monkey with the traditional recipes Rheo Thompson used, especially the Mint Smoothies which we are famous for.” They also make around 150 other confections including pecan patties, humbugs and fruit jellies. Plus, now you can get Mint Smoothie coffee, ice cream and liqueur.

Phil Buhler demonstrates a flight of beer fantasy.

A working man’s kind of place, Jobsite Brewery, is also very family friendly and served great wood oven pizza. Opened last August , the location used to be a lumberyard and inspired the name. The two owners are also agricultural construction dudes (need a manure pit installed?) and converted the site into a brewery in a scant two months. Phil Buhler and Dave Oldenberger view beer production similar to construction. “We love producing a product and seeing people enjoy,” explains Buhler. A cute touch was the different coloured construction nails you use to pick out the beers for a flight. My favourite brew was the Impact IPA with delighful grapefruit notes.

Ash Moore demonstrates the art of the pour at Junction 56.

Junction 56 Distillery is the place to go for creative spirits. Along with vodka, gin and whiskey, they make a Fireshine liqueur with cinnamon, the Rheo Thompson Mint Smoothie liqueur and a rhubarb gin. Owner Mike Heisz worked at Blackberry as an engineer but got tired of making lists of people to lay off. “I wanted to work for myself,” he says noting that now he uses an iPhone. The distillery opened in 2015 and now offers 15 products, five of which are available in the LCBO – vodka, gin, black raspberry gin, Rheo Thompson’s Mint Smoothie (soon to come) and Moonshine.

Being a chocoholic, I couldn’t resist doing Stratford’s Chocolate Trail. For $30 you get six vouchers to trade for delicious treats in various shops. At the MacLeod’s Scottish Shop I scooped some chocolate chip shortbread, at Buzz Stop a quarter-pound bag of Bavarian Chocolate Coffee, at Rheo Thompson four Mint Smoothies, at Olive Your Favourites an aged dark chocolate Balsamic vinegar, at revel coffee cafe a mocha coffee/steamed milk concoction, and at Treasures a jar of Nith Valley Apiary’s cocoa honey. Chocolate heaven!

Chef Ryan O’Donnell at Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall shows off one of his Asian-inspired creations.
Our server (another Ryan) was in charge of the dessert flights.

Dinner my last night was a Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell is an afficiando of Japanese fusion cuisine and some of the small plates I dug into included Karaage fried chicken pieces, crispy tuna sushi roll, pulled pork toastada with spicy BBQ sauce and a Spider Dog 2.0 with flaming chorizo sausage, Desserts are pretty amazing here, too.

The fantastic Festival Theatre where Billy Elliot was playing.

Theatre is what Stratford is really known for, and that night I witnessed a performance of Billy Elliot at the Festival Theatre. It was top-notch and the actors received a standing ovation.

The beautiful Avon River.

As I climbed on the 11 p.m. bus, that picked me up right at the theatre, I looked forward an easy trip home. But that night the Raptors became NBA champions. Many downtown streets were closed for the jubilant crowds, so the driver dropped us off at Islington subway station. No complaints from me, the subway was still running and I avoided traffic jams.

Stratford is a dining delight, a cultural treasure and beautiful, to boot. Definitely worth the two-hour drive from Toronto. Especially when taking the special Stratford bus!

Sitting Pretty in the Florida Panhandle

In the Florida Panhandle, fish rule. Go into just about any restaurant and there will be a giant stuffed marlin swinging above your head. Thankfully, I love fish (as do these pelicans). Recently, I visited three Panhandle destinations to suss out what the area has to offer.


Harbor Docks mascot.

After landing at Florida Northwest International Airport in Panama City, I picked up a rental car and headed to Destin, about an hour’s drive west. First stop was at Harbor Docks, a restaurant on the water that opened in 1979. They specialize in locally sourced seafood and chef Dang McCormick, from Chaing Mai, offers Thai dishes every day at lunch. This is where I caught sight of my first panhandle marlin, hanging feistily from the rafters.

My accommodation was at The Island, by Hotel RL, on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.  Built in the 1960s, it had been recently refurbished. My beach-view suite was spacious and well appointed with mini fridge, microwave and a roomy balcony. With cold drink in hand, I marvelled at the many beach volleyball games that were going on, despite the fact that a storm was set to break any minute.  And rain it did!

Feeding the birds on the dolphin cruise.

The next day, thankfully, the sun came out and I took a Southern Star Dolphin Cruise. Captain Jason told us there were around 100 dolphins living in the area and we spotted quite a few darting after their fish dinners. This was a great outing for the families on board, the captain even took photos with all the children.

Just up the road from my hotel was Henderson Beach State Park. A ¾ mile nature trail wound through the dunes and I stopped often to read signs describing the flora and fauna of the region. Benches were scattered along the trail and I took a moment to just sit and breathe in the salty, pine-scented air.

Destin is an anglers’ heaven, as I found out at the Fishing and History Museum. Outside there was an historic seine fishing boat named Primrose, a cabin housing the old post office and a memorial walkway naming all Destin’s famous fishing families. Inside, the walls were hung with 75 mounts of locally caught fish. Black and white photographs chronicled the massive fish caught in the area over the years. One room was set up as an impromptu theatre with a video describing the birth of the 65-year-old Destin Fishing Rodeo – a fishing tournament with lots of history and prizes. “Originally a commercial fishery, Destin has now become a mecca for charter fishing boats,” Kathy Blue, the museum’s executive director, explained. 

She was right. Wandering along nearby Harbour Walk later in the afternoon I came across a row of stalls where freshly caught red fish were being cleaned and packaged up for sports fisherman who had spent the day on the water.

Paula Deen, the deep fry queen.

Stopping in for a quick gander at Destin Commons, an outdoor shopping complex with more than 90 shops and restaurants, I stumbled upon the launch of a new Paula Deen restaurant. Who knew the controversial southern fried belle would be in attendance that day to sign her new cookbook?


Driving west, in about 40 minutes I came to Navarre Beach. I had arranged to rent a bicycle from Sage Paddle Company and soon was peddling past houses and out to the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  Wow. Powdered sugar beaches and not too many people. This was pure natural shoreline with nothing but dunes and one covered picnic area. The sand actually squeaked underfoot!

 After an exhilarating ride, I met the bike/paddleboard company’s owner, 16-year-old Sage Offutt who was camped out in the parking lot with her service French bulldog Oliver. Oliver had been trained to know when a migraine was coming on so Sage could take her meds before it became full-blown. “He knows because he can sense my serotonin levels as well as my sleeping and eating patterns. He warns me by licking me. I haven’t suffered from a migraine for almost a year,” explained Sage. Before getting Oliver a little more than a year ago, she was getting migraines up to four times a week. Sage told me she has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which affects the body’s connective tissues and is very painful. Who knew Frenchies could be such wonderful health canaries?

Sage’s business got off the ground when she was 11 and had just moved to Navarre Beach from Colorado with her family. Her dad wanted her to get involved in more than lying on the beach and as a pilot experiment he gave her $5,000 to start up a paddle board rental company. “There was no other rental company around and it really took off,” Sage explained. She was supposed to pay her dad back at the end of the year, but instead it only took 17 days. Now she also rents scooters, kayaks and bicycles. This won’t be a permanent career for her, though. “I’ll probably sell the business after I finish my undergrad. I want to study medicine, pediatric neurology, and help kids out like me who have health issues,” she explained. In 2016 she was named Florida’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Governor Rick Scott and in 2017 she was invited as a VIP guest, representing the state’s small business owners, to his State of the State address. I could tell that, although demure and self-effacing, Sage was a real force of nature. Now with Oliver on board, she’s unstoppable.

Lunch was at Cactus Flower Café, a California-style Mexican food eatery where everything is made from scratch. Salsa is made twice daily, and a whole avocado is used in each order of guacamole. No animal fat is added to the refried beans and extra virgin olive oil is used for sautéed items. Everything I tried was light and flavourful – chips and salsa, apps including queso bites, flauta and mango shrimp, mahi mahi fish taco and Mexican wedding cake for dessert. Speaking with the manager, I learned there are four Cactus Flower Cafes, two in Pensacola, one in Pace and the one I visited in Navarre.

Exploring the area a little further, I came upon the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. As soon as I stepped through the door, I was greeted by the most wonderful little creature.

Sweet Pea was a green turtle who had been found on a Texas beach, tangled in fishing nets. She was transported to the Gulfarium, a Destin marine adventure park that does rescue and rehabilitation, where she underwent surgery. One of her flippers was removed and part of her shell. Despite such a horrific experience, the six-year-old, little Green turtle seemed genuinely happy zipping around her indoor pool. “We move the rocks around and float a ball on the surface so she gets a change of view,” Jared Lucas, a volunteer animal caretaker, told me.

Navarre Beach Pier, the longest pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, on the Navarre Beach Pier (the longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,545 feet long and 30 feet above the water), I saw members of the Conservation Center in action. Crammed with fisher folk, I watched as one excited customer landed a small mahi mahi and another reeled in a Spanish mackerel. Parked at the far end of the pier was a turtle rescue vehicle.

Bob, part of the turtle conservation team, helps fisherman untangle turtles who get caught in their lines.

“We have rescued more than 60 turtles since the program started a little more than a year ago,” Bob, a retired air force pilot told me. As we stood there looking out at the water, I saw a dark shadow swim by and then surface. A Green turtle, just about the same size as Sweet Pea! Bob told me that most of the shrimp boats in the Gulf now use TEDs – turtle evacuation devices, which allow the creatures to exit the bottom of the net without impacting the shrimp catch.

“We get green, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley and leatherback turtles here. The Kemp’s ridley are the most endangered. There was a program to increase their numbers in the Gulf, but the BP oil spill happened in their prime feeding area, so the numbers are still declining,” Bob explained. My heart aches when I recall that sickening oil avalanche. But I am so glad in places like Navarre Beach people are being educated and turtles are being saved.

While in Navarre Beach I stayed at Beach Colony, a Southern Vacation Rentals condo complex right on the beach and very close to the Navarre Beach Pier. These rentals very spacious and a good option for families. Mine was three bedrooms, with a huge living room, dining area, kitchen, three bathrooms and a sprawling balcony overlooking the water.

Not wanting to cook, I headed over to the nearby Springhill Suites Resort by Marriott Navarre Beach. Cocktails were on the terrace and after sunset some people remained, huddled around a stylish propane terrace fire. It was starting to get a little chilly, so I went inside where chef James Fontaine told me he grew up on a sailboat. His love of the sea could be seen on the menu. I started with crab cakes jammed with claw meat and topped with a mustard caper remoulade. Next was a salad of greens, strawberries, blueberries and grilled salmon, coated with sweet, spicy pineapple juice. I sampled some of the grouper (by this time I was getting very full) and took home a slice of salty caramel cheese cake which I just managed to find some room for. Delicious.


My final panhandle stop was Panama City Beach, just a half-hour from the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. I checked into the Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort, with fabulous beachfront access, a pool and close proximity to another pier. I noticed people came early in the morning and staked out spots under the pier where they would sling up hammocks. Armed with a towel, hammock and cooler, what more could you ask for? Oh yeah, sunscreen. I forgot to put it on one day and got really burned. The sun is wicked in Florida.

Bar at the Grand Marlin.

On a two-hour trip with Island Time Sailing, I was set to spot dolphins, but there weren’t many. Instead, it was the sunset that really had me in awe. The pinks, golds and oranges were stunning. Dinner later was at the Grand Marlin, not far from the cruise dock.

I dug into a kale Caesar salad topped with blackened Gulf Shrimp. So good.

My last water activity was jet skiing to Shell Island. I signed up at Lagoon Pontoon and was joined by a group of travellers from Brazil. Some of us were a bit nervous, but after following our guide Wesley’s instructions we were on our merry way. Shell Island is uninhabited and a nesting ground for various shore birds. It’s also a hot destination for pontoon boat tours that bring in groups to swim from the sandy shores.

Hungry after that jet skiing, I headed to FINN’s for fish tacos. It was Taco Tuesday and I got two for one! Stuffed with mahi mahi, tomatoes and coleslaw, these tacos draw fans from miles around. The kitchen was set up in a food truck, parked permanently by a patio next to a surf shop. Patron sit at picnic tables and munch their meals on the patio. Attached to the surf shop was a wonderful coffee café where I sipped one of the smoothest cold brews I’ve ever tasted.

To get a top-notch view of the area, I went to City Pier, a shopping destination and home to a monster big Ferris wheel called SkyWheel. The air conditioned wheel car was the perfect place to snap shots of the waterfront and beach area.

My final dinner was at Firefly, a sushi restaurant near the Edgewater Resort. I ordered the crab and tuna tower with mango, avocado and cucumber. It was amazing and a delicious end to my sunny, sandy, fishy adventure on the Florida Panhandle.

Brussels, alive with fabulous art and food

Brussels: Grand Place at Night

Waffles, chocolate, cobblestone streets, grand plazas. Brussels is my kind of town. The city was my final stop on a recent, whirlwind tour of Belgium. The train to Brussels from Ghent was a quick 40-minutes and before I knew it I was checked into my hotel, The Dominican. Originally built as a Dominican Abby in the 1500s, the building was also once home to the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David from 1816-1825. As I rode the elevator to my room, a soundtrack of chanting monks filled the air. A peacefulness prevailed in the property of 150 guest rooms and suites, and the main floor was dedicated to an airy restaurant and bar where remnants of the Abby’s cloistered halls remain.

It was Sunday and I was determined to see as many galleries as possible since they were all closed the next day. After purchasing my Brussels City Card, I made my way to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium.

Waffles everywhere, even outside the Royal Museums of Fine Art!

The Old Masters Department was breath taking. I started off in the Bruegel Box, a room where the 16th century artist’s paintings were projected, one at a time, on three walls. Standing in the centre of the room, I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the villagers of his painting Proverbs then surrounded by demons from The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Wandering through the galleries I saw many of Bruegel’s works, as well as those of Jacque-Louis David, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. It was rather overwhelming and once I had completed the round I headed next door to the Magritte Museum to take in a totally different creative talent.

René Magritte was a surrealist well known for his paintings of pipes and men in bowler hats and much of his work was done between 1940-1965.

Brussels is very walkable, much of the historic downtown is pedestrian only and everywhere there is something to look at, from the statue of the little boy peeing, to The Grand Place, or central square with the commanding Town Hall, Museum of the City of Brussels and the opulent guild halls, sparkling with touches of gold paint.

After living and breathing Brussels for a day, I needed sustenance and headed to Bonsoir Clara for a little refreshment. A popular spot with locals, the menu featured Belgian/French cuisine with dishes such as terrine of duck foie gras, shrimp croquettes, salmon tartare, panfried baby sole, and rack of lamb. I wanted to go light that night and opted for the avocado, smoked salmon and goat cheese salad which was divine.

The next day I engaged a walking tour guide named Paquita who met me in the hotel lobby. She informed me that the city historically had been know for its woollen goods, especially tapestries. Our first stop was the Cathedral (officially known as St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral), a mammoth structure with an interior of white stone that was filled with light.

Most impressive were the stained glass windows, some done by Bernard van Orley in 1537. “He was the master of the master Bruegel,” Paquita explained. The Brabant Gothic-style cathedral was begun in 1226 with the choir and various part came later including the stained glassed windows from the 16th century, the pulpit (carved from one giant piece of oak) in the 17th century, and the carillon in 1975. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Napoleon Bonaparte are just two of the world renowned figures to have passed through its doors. “To prove they were humble before God, they both used a small side door,” said Paquita on our way out, pointing to a shabby brown wooden entrance now permanently locked.

The next church on our tour was Notre Dame de Chappell, where Bruegel the Elder is buried. Getting in the spirit of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program, the church has hidden small figures, recognizable from Bruegel’s paintings throughout the church. It was so funny to see the sombre Catholic statures of saints bedecked with these funny characters, including a blowfish, a male figure relieving himself on the moon, and a little round frog-ish imp scampering up a ladder. We also saw some of the same figures at the train station!

Mad Meg climbs the train station stairs.

Needing a little warm up, Paquita took me to one of her favourite coffee and chocolate shops, Laurent Gerbaud, where you get your pick of a handcrafted chocolate to go with your beverage. Fantastic!

Chocolate to die for.

My final dinner in Brussels was at Henri’s, a tiny chef-owned operation where I was able to sit by the kitchen window and watch the action. I opted for steak frites and it melted in my mouth.

Belgium far exceeded my expectations. There is a lot more happening in the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program with new visitors’ centres and exhibits popping up until well into 2020. If you get a chance, go! Check out the Visit Flanders website for more information.

Ghent, a beautiful city you never heard of.

My Belgian adventures continue…From Antwerp, I caught a one-hour train to Ghent. The trains in Belgium make exploring the country so easy. From the train station, I took a taxi to the historic centre of town and my hotel, the Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof. The hotel was once the home of wealthy poet Baron Olivier Reylof, built in 1712. Newly renovated, the 157-room accommodation had a unique library/lounge area atop a sweeping staircase where I was able to sort out my plans and sip a cup of coffee before exploring.

Ghent is crammed with castles, churches and shops, plus there’s a huge university so students are everywhere. I purchased a Ghent City Card and the first place I visited was the Castle of the Counts. Armed with headset and remote, I embarked on an entertaining, self-guided tour through the massive stone structure and learned of the original inhabitants – Philip the Good, Count of Flanders, and his wife Elizabeth, and second wife Isabella. Not merely a home, this stronghold in the center of downtown Ghent, was also where justice was meted out and many a grisly execution occurred here.

He told me he was Philip the Good’s cousin.

One of the best ways to get to know a place is by taking a tour with a local guide. Ghent native Patty Delanghe walked me through the ancient city and helped unravel many tangled tales.  She told me that in the Middle Ages, Ghent was very wealthy, due to the wool trade. During the Industrial Revolution, the textile industry really took off and Ghent remained a leading, quality cloth producer right up until the 1980s.

Wandering around Ghent’s streets was like walking into a fairy tale. Small tour boats plied the waters of the Lys and Scheldt rivers, ancient homes and businesses lined the river banks, church spires rose among the clouds and young people swarmed the streets and cafes. Of Ghent’s 250,000 population, students comprise 70,000, the largest in the country.

We stopped into St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest parish church, to see a world renown treasure. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece) was painted in 1432 by Hubert van Eyck. After his death, it was said that his brother Jan, a diplomat and artist, completed the work. Patty explained that the oak panels were first covered with an extremely fine layer of chalk and then van Eyck painted the figures on in layers. Close up, the fine details of the faces were exquisite and realistic. There was a translucence to the piece that almost made it glow. Patty noted that in 1934, two panels of the altarpiece, The Just Judges and John the Baptist, were stolen. “The diocese of Ghent received a number of ransom notes and one panel, John the Baptist, was returned to lend weight to the demands. But no ransom was ever paid, nor was the other panel returned. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.” Currently, a team of specialists is working to restore the vibrancy of the original colours which have dimmed due to layers of varnish, fire damage and other environmental factors over the years.

Another highpoint (literally!) was the belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the huge alarm bell to protect the city’s citizens resides. I also enjoyed seeing St. Nicholas’ Church from the early 12th century, and the Great Butcher’s Hall that dates back to the 15th century where locally cured Ganda hams hang from the ceiling. Walking along the winding cobblestoned streets Patty also pointed out beguines, clusters of houses where single women (often widows of knights who fought in various crusades) lived together as a Catholic community.

After a full day on my feet, my appetite was fierce and I stopped into Souvenir, a tiny gem of a restaurant helmed by chef Vilhjalmur “Villy” Sigurdarson. I opted for the 9-course carte blanche menu with paired wines. The dishes were largely planted-based and delightful. I started with the house cocktail, made with gin, tonic, green tea and elderberry flowers – light, crisp and a tad tangy. “Tonight, we serve dishes made with plants from West Flanders, as well was fish from the North Sea,” Villy explained. The small plates included an oyster with young white cabbage and fennel, hake smoked in hay with kohlrabi and marigold flowers, three types of mushrooms, white and green asparagus with charred leeks, skate baked in butter and a dessert of Jerusalem artichoke with brown sugar and winter thyme cream. Delicious.

The second night I went to Mémé Gusta, a bustling spot filled with families and a funky, vintage décor – comfy sofas, flowered wallpaper, wooden tables and funky chandeliers. “The owners won a chef challenge on TV to open this restaurant based on their grandmother’s recipes,” Patty explained. I started with a small bowl of grey shrimp the size of my baby toe, then proceeded with buttery, pan-fried sole, and the mandatory frites with a pot of mayonnaise for dipping.

Ghent may be a place nobody has heard of, but in a way that is great. It’s a place where locals go about their business undisturbed and visitors can fit right in.

Belgium’s Artful Masters… Starting in Antwerp

The fabulous Mier shopping street.

The last time I was in Belgium I was 18. Not that long ago… Well, yes. Many things have changed, but also much has not. The chocolate is still exquisite…as are the waffles.

No shortage of my favourite food.

Along with the food, my main mission on a recent visit to this western European country of 11 million was to see famous masterpieces, including those done by the Van Eyck brothers, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The Flemish Masters Project 2018-2020 is a program of exhibits, virtual experiences, restorations, festivals and whimsical jaunts that art lovers can partake in throughout the country.

After touching down in Brussels, I hopped a train (the station is in the airport) to Antwerp. The trains are fast, frequent and well priced. I zipped to Antwerp in about half an hour for around 10E. Antwerp Central train station was completed in 1905 and was named the most beautiful railway station in the world by Mashable magazine in 2014. With soaring stone pillars, an imposing dome and decorative floor patterns, I could see why. Although damaged by bombs in the second world war, the station was restored In the 1980s and by 2007 an expansion for high-speed trains was complete.

The very regal Antwerp train station.

My hotel, Radisson Blue Astrid was conveniently located across from the train station. Dropping off my bags, I headed out to see the city with a local guide, Toon Livens (Toon is short for Antoon). The diamond district was fascinating, teaming with gemological centres, banks and traders. The security was serious. Toon told me the two groups of people involved in the diamond business are orthodox Jews and Jains (from India). Jewish diamond specialists were once predominant, but the Jains started arriving in Belgium in the 1960s. They started with low quality rough stones that they would send back home for cutting and polishing. It costs 1/10 the amount to cut and polish in India versus Europe. Now three quarters of Belgium’s diamond trade is controlled by Indians and 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds are processed in India. As you can see below, security is tight in the diamond district.

My first taste of Flemish art was in the home and studio of painter Peter Paul Rubens. He purchased the home in 1610 and lived there with his family, and painted with colleagues such as Anthony van Dyck in the studio. Although the home’s walls were hung with many outstanding works, I particularly enjoyed seeing Rubens’ self-portrait.

Nearby was The Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic Cathedral in Belgium that took 169 years to build. Toon pointed out four masterpieces by Rubens including Raising of the Cross, and Descent from the Cross. “These two works were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France, but they were returned in the 19th century,” he explained. Rubens’ magnificent Assumption of the Virgin Mary graced the altar at the front of the cathedral and to one side was his Resurrection of Christ.

In the fall, the Rubens Experience Center will open and visitors will be taken on a virtual tour of the artist’s world. That’s also when the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens after extensive renovations and you’ll be able to see one of the finest Rubens collections in Belgium.

Dinner that night was at Grand Café Horta, an art Nouveau structure lodged within a glass enclosure near the gorgeous covered shopping mall that was once a posh entertainment venue called Stadsfeestzaal.

Steak tartare…amazing.

One of the best ways to explore involves buying a City Card, which are available in many Belgian metropolises. My Antwerp City Card, 35 Euros for 48 hours, provided free entrance to museums, churches and discounts on attractions and tours, plus free access to public transportation. For free, I took in DIVA, a virtual experience that mixed storytelling with exhibits of Antwerp diamonds, and the Red Star Line Museum which chronicled how between 1873 and 1934 two million people (most looking for a better life) were transported from Antwerp to North America on Red Star line ships, mostly to New York, but some to Canada.

My last visit in the city was to Chocolate Nation, conveniently located next door to my hotel. The city card allowed a 10 per cent discount on admission. I was given a headset and remote control that I could activate throughout the exhibit to receive explanations about the ships that come to Antwerp carrying tons of cacao beans, local beanologists who pick only the finest, the roasting process, and how 1 in 10 pieces of chocolate found around the world are from Belgium. A highlight was the chocolate bonbon-making demonstration. At the end, a plate of finished chocolates was passed around and I popped one into my mouth. Heaven. Smooth, creamy, rich. Not at all like the waxy industrial chocolate so prevalent in North America.

Topping off my explorations was dinner at RAS overlooking the Scheldt River. As the sun was setting, I tucked into a delicious seafood salad with huge shrimp, seared scallops and slices of sole. A rich ending to an adventure in the city of diamonds, chocolate and culture.

Philadelphia’s Historic Playgrounds

Smith Playhouse Exterior
No matter what, kids love to play. And if it’s in a historic spot, all the better. But these spaces take a lot of elbow grease and creative fundraising to remain safe and in repair. Transformation of an historical building into a child’s fun/learning zone takes even more.
Philadelphia’s kid-friendly, history-steeped playgrounds are Franklin Square, a once a neglected magnet for the homeless that boasts a sparkling carousel and a mini-golf homage to the city’s history; Victorian-era Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse which underwent a multi-stage restoration, including that of a much-loved treasure, the giant slide; and Please Touch Museum, the nation’s first children’s museum in Memorial Hall, originally the Art Pavilion during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
It may have been one of the three remaining green space squares that founding father William Penn designed for Philadelphia in the 1700s, but that didn’t mean it was always treated like an historic gem.
“Daycare workers used to clean away the drug paraphenalia in Franklin Square every morning before letting their charges use the playground,” says Amy Needle, CEO of Historic Philadelphia Inc.,founded in 1994 to promote tourism. Needle’s group, along with Fairmount Parks, is responsible for the 7.5-acre square’s rebirth.
Reopened in 2006, the square, which is a few blocks from Independence Mall at 6th and Race Streets, cost $6.5 million to renovate. It’s star attractions are a carousel painted with Philly scenes including boathouse row, a mini-golf game that features music by homegrown stars such as Patti Labelle, and food vendors with brotherly love staples such as soft pretzels.
The inclusion of Philadelphia Park Liberty Carousel, 36 feet in diameter and outfitted with 30 carved figures (including a sea dragon and eagle), is fitting since Philadelphia was once the carousel-making capital of the world. In the mid-19th century it was home to three manufacturers, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and D.C. Mueller & Bro. The carousel in the square today was made by Chance Morgan Co. in Wichita, Ka., using original moulds from the Dentzel Carousel Company and Philadelphia Toboggan Company.
Deep in East Fairmount Park is an imposing three-story Beaux-Arts mansion, built just for kids. Designed by architect James H. Windrim at the height of the late nineteenth century Play Movement, the 24,000-square-foot Playhouse opened in 1899 and has remained open ever since.circus_practice
Outside on the Playground’s six-and-a-half acres, is the Giant Wooden Slide —a 40-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, 10-foot-high covered maple slide that was installed in 1905 and fits up to twelve children abreast.PlayhouseSlidepictureJuly2003_005 “The slide is one of the most unique sights I’ve ever known. There has been an enormous affection for it for generations,” notes Hope Zoss, the site’s executive director.
In 2003, the Playground closed due to the equipment not being up to safety standards. With the help of a donation of $325,000 from a 92-year-old donor who had fond memories of the slide as a child, upgrades were made and it reopened in 2005, bearing her daughter’s name, the Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide.The second phase of improvement took place the following year with the installation of 18 swings. The Playhouse, which is aimed primarily at the under-five set, offers indoor activities such as riding tricycles through a child-sized “town,” and a puppet show theatre.
Richard and Sarah Smith (he was a wealthy Philadelphian who made his money in typesetting) built the site as a memorial to their son and as a country play haven for inner-city children. Since opening, it has drawn up to 1,000 visitors a day, from every income level. In 1977 it was listed on the City Historic Register.
Zoss notes that the Richard and Sarah Smith Trust of “two million dollars” is used for day-to-day operations and the funds for the improvements, estimated at “$10 million dollars,” are being raised through “individuals, foundations corporations and government agencies.”
Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in West Fairmount Park after its inception as an Art Pavilion, served a few purposes, including headquarters for the Fairmount Park Commission. Its new role as the Please Touch Museum is far more playful.
The Beaux-arts building reopened in 2008 with 135,000 square feet of exhibits including a 40-foot high replica of the Statue of Liberty arm and torch created by artist Leo Sewell out of toys (the statue’s original arm and torch graced the 1876 exhibit), and a 1924 Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia carousel, on loan from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Originally, the carousel operated at Woodside Park, less than 10 blocks away. Additional exhibits include a flight fantasy area with propeller bike and flying machine and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with rabbit hole slide. Plus, there are other hands-on displays of inventions unveiled at the 1876 fair such as the typewriter and root beer.
Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark, was renovated according to standards set by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Of the museum’s $88 million budget (raised through government, individuals and corporations), $40 million went into building upgrades such as new windows. Much of the renovation involved removal of 1950s intrusions such as dropped ceilings.
“It was in good shape structurally when we got it. The soaring atrium is 150 feet tall and was concealed by walls that had been put in,” explains Willard Whitson, the museum’s vice president, exhibits and education. The decorative filigree and statuary uncovered around the atrium dome are in “wonderful condition,” says Whitson.
It’s a happy fact that history, when preserved and sprinkled with imagination, can deliver a whole lot of fun and learning for kids and adults alike. Technology might be making advances at the speed of sound, but Philly’s historic play havens prove that old fashion fun still has power for today’s kids.